For the odd moments I can manage to think of something.

Turn on, tune in

In 2008 the Wenchuan Earthquake in Sichuan province, China killed at least 68 thousand people. The epicentre was in the mountains but the force of the event spread far enough to be felt in other countries. With a seismic event of that magnitude, it was recognised that the extent of the damage would be terrible.

The scientific information arrived quickly, but the human elements were so quiet through international media. That’s not a criticism, it’s something that happened. The plain fact was that reporters would not get anywhere near the centre and the areas most damaged had their communications knocked out. Getting information in and out of affected areas was going to be slow via traditional means and this could cost lives as well as increasing panic and concern around the world as the families and friends of those in Chengdu and other places were unable to find out if their loved ones were alive.

Haiti has faced a similar situation. The entire communications network came down as the latest earthquake wreaked havoc. The initial news had been released but the important, personal details were impossible to collect by regular methods.

In both cases, satellite and internet communications brought forward the fastest updates and connections I had ever seen. In China, volunteers and teachers were accessing the web and putting out word via Twitter. While the TV crews and mainstream reporters were unable to gain access due to safety issues, people were on-line, telling us what was happening just minutes after the initial tremors. If these people were on-line to use Twitter, it was possible that they could be found using Skype or other voice over internet methods and soon a picture of lives disrupted was being created.

One of the outstanding things about these stories for me was that they all came from alternative sources. These were not practised presenters creating a summary of events, they were not people who had just arrived and had to pull together what little information was available. They were the lives lived in that location, they understood fully the impact and the horror of having a neighbourhood torn apart. They had heard the peaceful ambience before and could compare the disastrous clamour afterwards, their knowledge exceeded that of the media many times and their choices of stories to tell were revealing what was important to those communities.

I’m not at all against reporters summarising and creating our news reports. These are practised professional story tellers, they know what is vital to an audience, but at this time, my news was broken from the inside and it was more moving and vital than I had heard before.

In Haiti people were uploading via satellite internet connections. The immediate realisation of the urgency to get that information out was so fast. Individuals were distributing personal satellite phone numbers so that loved ones and news outlets far away could make contact and spread the word worldwide.

These people don’t have to do any of this. They could be wandering the streets, or getting into dangerous areas to find others caught in fallen structures. The division of labour and organisation in these situations humbles me. The knowledge that something simple, like setting up a communications hub in a disaster could bring reassurance to millions of people via one satellite mobile set up. To tell the right stories. That to me is both moving and incredible in its nature.

Self organisation on-line via web pages with message boards, translators working for free, constant updates, images, video and more importantly human voices spread around the world to send the message when things are definitely not okay. That connected society seems a long way away from Tim Berners Lee’s initial network. But it shows to me what people can do with something designed for one purpose that utterly changes in a different situation.

Admittedly, in many ways, networks of on-line society are very small. Though the media hype is that everyone should be on Twitter – they’re not. It’s a small percentage of the world, but it’s just enough to make a difference and it’s growing.

So, for those who want to tell me as a journalist that twitter is narrow casting and blogs are a waste of time. Please let me know how best to help people far away, to learn about what is happening to them by traditional means? Those habits that seems so inconsequential when you’re talking about your regular daily activities. Those innovations by 17 year old computer kids stuck in their room all day, making things that seem stupid or weird. These things can become transmitters for the most powerful and moving human stories in mainstream news organisations all over the world.

That chain of communication is what brings those bulletin reports at the end of the day to your TV set. And its because a few individuals make the choice to try those silly things and turn them into something amazing.

7 Responses to “Turn on, tune in”

  1. Steve Morton

    Twitter is a great emergency comms app. It is capable using narrow band slow internet links, even via HF radio. It’s very similar to an Amateur Radio packet radio application that dates back to the 1980’s. Amateur Radio is being used to help out with the communications at the moment, but mainly speech rather than data.

    The protocol already exists for broadcast messaging, or replying or direct messaging, the bearer system doesn’t need to be a thick pipe it would work even via a very limited bandwidth radio circuit. The equipment could be battery power with solar or wind generators.

    The 140 character limit isn’t a big problem if you look at the way we use Twitter.

    I think it has a lot of future applications in the world of disaster recovery in addition to day to day use.

    • jemimahknight

      Yeah, Twitter definitely reminds me of CB radio days. I remember my Dad was tuned in to the truckers (Thankfully not RustyNail!) but it meant we had the best of the traffic reports from the right people.

      In crisis situations alternative methods of communication are so valuable.

      Today my local neighbourhood has a twitter stream for travel and weather too – we all post updates about the buses and tube so others can plan accordingly.

      Skype being free and satellite becoming more accessible – this seems to be a template for making sure the right messages get out. A win for noodling about with electronics.

  2. Daniel

    I have noticed when it comes to breaking important news I turn to twitter! I think if a major event happened now I would have bbc news on tv and read twitter updating at the same time. It gives me the freedom to see new feeds coming in live and public! the tweets may be rubbish information but its great to get live news at a time! I dont want an editor telling me what to do know, I want to make those decisions myself.

    During the Hurricane Ike in America 2 years ago I followed a girl on twitter in Houston. She had no power for days and some of her roof was destroyed in it and we are very great friends now. I found it so interesting! I love that now you can follow personal stories yourself in these major events yourself!

    I already wrote online but I loved that the BBC have a live dynamic haiti page of info and its great. it takes info from tweets, personal stories, other news sources, other video. eg “cnn says this…” “link to video” Its so useful! I would say that is the future form of getting the stories, twitter is too small in characters and could be untrue xx

    • jemimahknight

      That choice is important to me too.
      I still listen to radio bulletins on the radio each morning to set me up for what the general news agenda is each day, but I have always preferred the personal tales. This is where I can get a basis for comparison, “what would I do?” and how do they feel? That makes the news something I want to think about more.

      Mixing the output clearly on news pages is also a nice touch. I like that there is less fear of linking out to other outlets and individual voices. I think it’s more respectful to offer that. People can still choose the mainstream summaries if it suits them.

  3. Kartik Mistry

    Until now, I thought that only Amateur Radio / Ham Radio can be use as emergency communication medium when everything else has failed.. Twitter has power within!

  4. Daniel

    Twitter is very interesting in that you can get your view out to people yourself really fast! like the Iran election, peoples own stories etc and even if you have a complaint against a company like Virgin or BT you can voice it there and often you get a quickly resolve then customer services! I think its empowering to the person on the street!

    I think in future revolutions and disasters and world events it will be very important, as maybe the only news source! its easier to access than skype, youtube or news and media contacts 🙂


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